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September 22, 2005 -- Today New Zealand's Stuff web site posted an unsigned piece about a new tactic by the national nurses' union to highlight short-staffing: placing a cardboard "nurse" called Mia (as in "Missing in action") on wards in which the staffing has fallen below the level nurses deem to be safe. The story is "Cardboard cut-out nurse to highlight shortage." It explains that the New Zealand Nurses Organization created Mia to focus attention on a "safe-staffing inquiry" by a joint union-management panel that the union hopes will lead to an improved staffing system. The Center commends Mia for her unusually creative patient advocacy.

The piece notes that Nurses Organization members plan to "put a Mia on display in a ward when the number of nurses falls below the number they consider safe." Outgoing union president Jane O'Malley notes that Mia might, for example, signal that a given unit has only four nurses when it should have five. Union members will also wear buttons with messages about the workloads of hospital nurses and midwives. The piece notes that public hospital nurses "won 14 to 30 per cent pay rises in February," but did not get the agreement they sought on safe staffing levels. Instead, the pay deal included the creation of "what the union calls the 'safe-staffing inquiry,'" which has reportedly been conducted by a panel of union and health board appointees and "an independent chairwoman." The piece notes that a draft plan from the panel, which is a "complex document" designed to specify staffing levels and skill mix, had been circulated to union members and hospitals for potential ratification. Union advisor Glenda Alexander notes that if the inquiry's recommendations require more funds for implementation, the deal calls for the unions and hospitals to jointly ask the government for it.

O'Malley is quoted as saying that staff shortages and excessive workloads have (in the report's words) "often left nurses feeling ashamed and frustrated" that they cannot give needed care. The piece also quotes O'Malley as saying that "[w]hen you cut corners sometimes patients are at risk and so is the nurse's registration." She calls safe staffing the "single most important issue to our members now pay equity has been achieved at district health boards."

The piece does not include any significant reaction from the hospitals or the government, but it notes that the reporter was unable to get comment from the health boards' "nursing spokesman" or the "spokesman" of Health Minister Annette King, who said that she could not comment "because we are in a caretaker role." We would be curious to know how hospital management might react to Mia's presence on a specific unit.

We thank the Stuff site for this helpful report on the creative efforts of Kiwi nurses to address staffing issues.

See the New Zealand Stuff article "Cardboard cut-out nurse to highlight shortage: Mia the cardboard cut-out "nurse" began her career yesterday as a watchdog for nursing shortages" in its September 22, 2005 edition.

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